The generational North American talent: On Dardoch and the toxic myth that NA talent doesn’t exist

“Three year contracts in esports aren’t common, but in Dardoch we see a special kind of player.  There are obvious areas of improvement for him, but Josh has the potential to be a generational North American talent. ” — Immortals CEO Noah Whinston on signing Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett.

In the span of a year, Dardoch has circled back from Immortals and Counter Logic Gaming to Team Liquid. Social media has bubbled over the ludicrous levels of comedic irony. After the publication of “Breaking Point,” an HTC Documentary, Dardoch’s 2017 became a parody of toxic teenage relationships where one partner insists it can “change” the rebel. “This time it will be different,” the thinking goes.

The general mirth derives from the fact that almost everyone claims they saw it coming. And in many cases, they did. As the narrative goes, Dardoch, just like problematic or “toxic” players before him, can’t find a comfortable team environment without putting his own needs before others or universally criticizing himself and others until everything fits the mold of what he believes will lead to success.

Whatever narrative you choose to follow, it has been told. Despite the full circle, I don’t believe the Dardoch problem begins or ends with Team Liquid, but something much more fundamental and damaging to the scene and those striving for success within it:

The idea that players like Dardoch are special.

“He is literally the most valuable player within the Team Liquid organization for League of Legends because he’s a star player,” Duncan “Thorin” Shields said, “he’s at a position where there are very few star players in LCS, and even worse, he’s a native North American player.”

Almost every bit of commentary, including the sixth episode of Esports Salon hosted by Thorin, accepts the fundamental assumption that native NA talent is so rare that players like Dardoch should be coveted to the point where it’s impossible to avoid spoiling them. NA teams cannot develop local talent on par with other regions, so they have no option to bench a player like Dardoch. Players like him might not come along for as much as another generation, to use Whinston’s words.

Under that premise, someone like Dardoch can leverage his position on a team. If he doesn’t like the environment, he can leave for any number of more attractive options.

Observing Dardoch’s history over the past year, organizations have gone so far as to publicize how special they believe he is. In Immortals’ announcement, Whinston said the team would go so far as to make an exception and sign a three-year contract.

Whinston’s statement clashes with Dardoch’s own words upon signing with Immortals.

“From the get-go,” Dardoch said, “I knew that the structure in place would leave me in a good spot regardless of roster and that I would work with people that are veterans and that have played a long time in LCS so that I’m not in a position where I have to lead, but I can.”

Dardoch’s image of Immortals contrasted with the eventual spring split team build. Although Immortals still had veteran players in Eugene “Pobelter” Park, Lee “Flame” Hojong, and Kim “Olleh” Joosung, Pobelter has never had a reputation for in-game leadership, and the disconnect on Immortals made it clear that no one had the leadership to create a “team” setting. With language limitations, Dardoch ended up in a leadership role he didn’t necessarily want.

Immortals ended up trading him for Jake “Xmithie” Puchero before the summer split, seeking a player with leadership qualities. Dardoch completed one-sixth of his term with the team.

A strange disconnect in Dardoch’s opening statement of not wanting to lead and Immortals’ own expectations justify some of social media’s response to Dardoch. Given the fact that Immortals referred to Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon’s departure for SK Telecom T1 as unexpected, it’s fair to wonder if Dardoch joined Immortals assuming at least Huni would remain.

“Me and Immortals did not have — I guess — aligned visions on where we wanted the team to go,” Dardoch told Travis Gafford after transferring to CLG. In the interview, he also mentioned receiving “a bunch of offers,” suggesting that his value still remained high. Many still bought into the idea that Dardoch was rare, despite obvious questions of why Immortals might want to get rid of him with only a sixth of his contract term spent.

Dardoch’s move to CLG provoked even more raised eyebrows. CLG’s reformation in 2016 without Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng saw several members of the team expressing how much more unified, versatile, and friendly the atmosphere felt. “We don’t have to play one forced style like the last CLG iteration had to,” Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black told ESPN.

As a result, critics of the Xmithie-Dardoch trade assumed CLG wouldn’t have the infrastructure or the environment in place to deal with a player like Dardoch. After all, many parallels have been drawn between Dardoch and Doublelift himself, and CLG actively moved to separate itself from that kind of personality.

On the contrary, that’s exactly why I assumed the move would be a good one. If any team or organization wouldn’t be naive about Dardoch, surely it would be CLG.

“Over the course of the split,” CLG’s statement on its separation with Dardoch reads, “we found that Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett did not align with our focus on teamwork and culture.”

“We found,” it says, as if Dardoch having a willful personality would come as a surprise. As if CLG hadn’t spoken to Team Liquid or Immortals before the trade to get a grasp of Dardoch’s history.

Of course CLG knew, and it still took the risk. Even Dardoch’s staunchest defenders won’t deny evidence from Dardoch’s team jumps or statements published by the teams on which he has participated. They might say Dardoch’s drive and unrelenting pursuit of success has its perks, and certainly they do, but at the point CLG signed Dardoch, no one would argue against the evidence that teams have found him disruptive.

Even if CLG had a plan so that this time it would be different, it likely saw Dardoch in the same light as Immortals and Team Liquid. Players like Dardoch don’t just come along. North America simply doesn’t have talent like Dardoch.

In retrospect, with the young junglers fans have seen grace the North American League of Legends Championship Series, that notion seems almost comical. The rise of jungle talents this year has made Dardoch much less special. He’s gone from one-of-a-kind to a problematic kid who is part of a larger wave.

While I perhaps won’t place the likes of Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia or Michael “MikeYeung” Yeung on a pedestal this early in their careers, they have come into the LCS with nearly identical attention and fanfare to Dardoch. They have aggression. They have mechanics. They sent their teams on more positive trajectories from those on which they began.

Did lightning strike three times in the span of two years? Are we to believe that Dardoch, Contractz, and MikeYeung can all develop into “generational” North American talents? Even then, what of the likes of Echo Fox’s Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham or FlyQuest’s Galen “Moon” Holgate?

Moon debuted in the LCS the same year as Dardoch with much less success, but he has since developed more dimensions and creativity as a jungler. His sense for engage has improved. Akaadian and Moon might not have the same expectations as Dardoch, but they certainly have surpassed expectations the term “NA jungler” set in the year 2016.

I’ve written at much greater length about how little the North American scene believes in its own talent in a direct response to Esports Salon Episode 6. In the episode, every panelist agreed with limited evidence that removing region-locking would make NA more competitive because of the dearth of local talent.

The attitude that players like Dardoch almost never come along has contributed to the development of the other side of Dardoch. Media and even team owners seem to constantly tell him that he is special because NA simply doesn’t produce junglers this good. He shouldn’t exist.

“My career’s really young,” Dardoch told Gafford, “so I never worried about losing my job or not being able to join a team.”

With more young junglers like Omar “OmarGod” Amin finding spots on LCS rosters and teams like CLG willing to go so far as to replace Dardoch mid-split, it will hopefully set a better backdrop. Although players like MikeYeung or Dardoch might lack knowledge and experience, teams should focus more on building resources to teach them rather than failing to look for them in the first place.

The idea that NA talent doesn’t exist doesn’t just hurt players who get replaced by imports; it hurts the NA talent that does manage to succeed. They get their own way more often. They may not have to focus on their own flaws as stringently because they believe that region-locking protects them or they’re nearly unique in their level of skill.

If Dardoch had debuted in 2017 during the excitement and constant social media celebration of NA’s supposedly deep pool of local junglers, maybe his career would have been different. Now that he’s been shuffled to three different teams within the span of the year, it’s possible he will see his position on Team Liquid as his last chance rather than a holding pen before he finds a squad that will take him to the League of Legends World Championship.

Dardoch wasn’t special. He was just one of the first.

With any luck, that realization will harden more than it hurts.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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